Young Contemporaries 2007

On view through April 27


Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

54 St. Philip St., 953-5680

It’s always disappointing for me to walk into a gallery and see a dull, uninspired show. Last Easter it happened at the Halsey, where its Young Contemporaries exhibition seemed largely bereft of bright ideas or confident technique. Each year YC highlights the best work from the CofC Studio Art Department, with a cross-section of different media selected by an independent juror and curated as a professional-level group show; that ups the stakes for the contributors, who usually rise to meet the challenge of providing high-grade work. But the quality level dipped in 2006.

When I expressed my disappointment in the City Paper, some readers accused me of being “cruel,” “mean,” and (worst of all) “uncool” for criticizing student work. As artists-in-training, the argument went, they weren’t ready for their work to be held up to the cold light of criticism. Better to encourage them with positive remarks or say nothing at all.

I don’t think anyone benefits from sweet talk, so I’m pleased to say that this year’s Young Contemporaries contains several artworks that actually deserve praise. It’s effused with the imagination and attention to detail that was lacking in 2006. This is the largest YC ever in terms of the number of artworks — 135 pieces in total, compared with 100 last year — but there’s no clutter and a minimum of junk. Each piece has room to breathe and be appreciated in its own right. Kudos to juror David Cohen, a New York curator and art critic who selected the work and had sole say on the show’s layout.

The paintings are a mixture of clean, respectable realism and rash experimentation. Danielle Brutto’s acrylic “Sleep,” with its subject lying in bed, successfully suggests the feeling of being enveloped in slumber. “Greek Life” (Joel Parker, oil on panel) places a group of playful young men and women in modern (if skimpy) attire amidst classical ruins; a subtle choice of colors helps the ancient and the modern to mix.

Fontini Christophillis’ more abstract “There’s No Stopping Curiosity” is full of energy, showing a literal explosion of colors and brushstrokes. A small, primal figure withstands the force of all the layers and strands of paint. Jody Christian’s oil on panel “Personal Perspective” is a self portrait with an appealing color scheme (orange, pink, and yellow) — especially when it’s compared to its grotty neighbors. Placing Christian’s painting next to the dark and messy “Black #4” (Michael Austin Diaz, latex enamel) and “Untitled” (Susan Reed, oil) is like parking a coiffed poodle next to two pit bulls.

Diaz’s photography is a lot stronger than his latex experiment. “Cottageville,” a sepia-toned shot of a dilapidated variety store, has a Walker Evans atmosphere without seeming derivative. Other photos benefit from assured perspective, like Jamie L. Kirby’s “What Holds Us In” and Emrys Jaskwhich’s “Untitled,” which incorporates a posed subject and graffiti on a wall (reading “More Money More Problems”). Caroline Wooten’s portrait of “Pippy,” a man with pigtails, is full of life and character. And Dan Gamble takes a fresh look at everyday objects with details of popcorn and a Slinky toy.

This show proves that an idea can be almost as important to the success of an artwork as technical ability. When the two are combined, we get a memorable exhibit. Even a tried and trusted artist’s exercise can be given a new twist, as in Lauren Faust’s “Untitled.” Faust’s monotypes of facial features depicted from different angles are deliberately oversized and displayed to striking effect. Elizabeth McWilliam’s pastel on paper “Dictators of Oz” is another good idea, with characters from The Wizard of Oz recast with real-life tyrants in the lead roles.

The atmosphere of experimentation extends to the materials used in the show. There’s video and computer-animated art from Andrew Dyck; a plasticky “Church and Oak Tree” by Rebecca Loren, where the medium could be a comment on organized religion; “Insecure,” Abbey Biddle’s oil-and-wood nude mosaic complete with round wooden nipples; and a handmade book by Jessica Jones, “Constant Proximity: Adoration/Abhorrence,” which documents the pain and joy of close friendship in intimate, emotive detail.

On the other side of the Simons Center, the exhibition’s Salon des Refuses — a tip of the hat to the 1860s-born show for rejects from the Salon de Paris — also has notable mixed-media work. Jody Christian’s “$630 Pancreas” is made up of cigarette butts and hardware cloth, while Ashley Bransome’s “Zen and the Art of Dying” is a miniature bone garden. Their odor adds an extra dimension to both pieces. The quality of the sculpture here is a vast improvement on last year’s; Karleigh Hambrick’s “Sun Sculpture” is the only one that really doesn’t work thanks to its overabundance of colors and gold sparkles. Like the sun, it’s not something you can look at for too long before your eyes start hurting.

Even when an artist’s talents have yet to be honed, her imaginative enthusiasm can raise the level of a show and make it a must-see. Thanks to that zest, Young Contemporaries 2007 won’t jar overmuch with the national-standard exhibitions that the Halsey usually hosts. If nothing else, the latest batch of CofC students has seized the chance to be scrutinized in the same light as the artists that they hope to one day work alongside.

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